Last weekend I went to Comic Arts Brooklyn. I bought a lot of comics. Here are six that I think are really good, and I think you should try to find as well.
I attended the first-ever Comic Arts Brooklyn festival on Saturday. The show, organized by Desert Island owner Gabe Fowler, is the offspring of the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival, which came to an end earlier this year zafter Fowler and the other organizers – Dan Nadel and Bill Kartalopoulos – decided to part ways.
Despite the different name, CAB (as it quickly came to be known) had a much similar feel and demeanor to BCGF, not terribly surprising since it was in the exact same location and featured many of the same exhibitors (along with some new faces of course). All of which is to say that CAB was a thoroughly enjoyable show, rich in the breadth and variety of small press work on display.
I pulled a number of photos and tweets taken during the show from the ether (OK, really just Storify) to give folks a sense of what the show was like. Enjoy.
His work might have a rushed, “dashed-off” look to it at times, but don’t kid yourself: Frank Santoro puts a lot of time and consideration into his comics. In fact, it’s safe to say he puts more thought into the overall structure and design of his pages than a lot of his contemporaries, as anyone who has read his “Layout Workbook” series of posts on TCJ.com can attest.
Santoro’s latest comic, the stand-alone graphic novel Pompeii, deals quite overtly with issues of art and craft, as it follows the story of aspiring ancient Roman artist Marcus who’s slaving away as an assistant to the more established painter Flavius (who has his own problems). Marcus is at something of a crossroads, frustrated by his slow progress under Flavius’ tutelage, but unwilling to move back home or reconsider his options, despite the pleadings of his girlfriend, Lucia. As you might expect given the book’s title, things come to a head quite violently with the eruption of a nearby volcano.
Overall Pompeii is a fast-paced but moving, almost tender at times, work, that begins almost as a sex farce but quickly turns into a more considered and elegiac consideration of careers, youth, love and the purpose of art and artistry in our lives.
I talked with Santoro recently about his new book and its conception.
A young girl ventures into an abandoned, labyrinthine city in order to find her lost brother, despite it’s being haunted by malevolent demons. One of the strengths of Wartman’s debut graphic novel is that he doesn’t vary much from that core story outline. He dabbles in a lot of overly familiar genre and mythological tropes to be sure (there’s some business with the demons being named and people entering the city forgetting who they are) but he doesn’t play up these elements too strongly or let them overwhelm the story, instead keeping the focus on the girl and her desire to locate her brother. I also liked the relationship between the girl and a somewhat helpful demon who seems so astonished that someone would willingly enter the city that he ends up acting as a benefactor. Again, it’s a familiar trope, but paces the story well enough that it never once feels rote or cliched.
Another key to the book’s success is the city itself. I can’t emphasize enough the need for cartoonists, especially young cartoonists, to set their stories in a well-defined universe. This is especially true in fantasy stories, where the reader needs to get a sense of the physical world the characters inhabit in order to be willing to accept the supernatural and logic-defying events that occur in the story. You can’t map out Wartman’s city in your head, but the seemingly endless panels of well-detailed corridors, stairs, gardens and passageways give a sense of scale to the story. The city seems so foreboding and ancient, you worry the characters really will lose their way. Overall I just appreciated this well-structured, engrossing adventure tale and hope it’s a sign of more good things to come from this particular cartoonist.
Leach’s big follow-up to 2011′s Pterodactyl Hunters is a very entertaining, tightly paced crime comic about two hoodlums living in Newark, New Jersey, in the early ’60s and the trouble they get into running “errands” for one of the local gangsters. I really liked the way Leach sets up the story, with a violent incident on a bus that quickly establishes the characters’ personalities and relationships to each other but also becomes an even more significant incident once you learn what those two were doing on that bus. Leach has an angular, slashing style that fits the grittiness of the material and also keeps the narrative moving a hurried clip, rarely taking a moment to pause. There’s at least one big plot hole that gave me pause (without spoiling anything, I find it difficult to believe that a certain ancillary character’s death would generate such a minor reaction from family members, friends and various authorities not on the take). A bit more perspective and varied viewpoints (it’s notable there’s no parental units to be found in Iron Bound) might have given the story a bit more depth, although it could also have easily slackened the book’s drumbeat pace. Overall, this is a sharp, strong book, a smart follow-up to Hunters and proof that Leach is a cartoonist to watch. The book even comes with a flexi-disc record to play during the story’s big fight/climax, a really terrific conceit, even if the nerd in me is hesitant to play it, for fear of damaging the book’s “mint” condition (you never know what might be worth money some day).
Hip Hop Family Tree by Ed Piskor, Fantagraphics Books, 120 pages, $24.99.
I enjoy both hip-hop and reading books about the history of music or nascent art forms in general, so this book fits right in my wheelhouse anyway, but, man, did I like this comic. I liked the way Piskor designed the book, making it look like one of those oversized Marvel or DC “Treasury” books from the 1970s, and even goes so far as to use newsprint-like paper and print the colors slightly off-register at times, all the better to evoke those lap-sized comics of yesteryear. I liked the way he juggles a huge cast of characters, jumping around from one to the next without losing or confusing the reader. I like how he employs some wonderful bits of cartoonish exaggeration (that, it should be noted, never devolves into ethnic stereotyping), so that Grandmaster Flash wears an impossibly large cap, Mellie Mel’s afro seems larger than his head at times, and Russell Simmons is a cross-eyed guy with a bad lisp. Piskor seems to know intuitively how to relate the best, most revealing and juiciest anecdotes without bogging the reader down in minutiae. I’ve enjoyed Piskor’s work in the past (most notably with his hacker book Wizzywig) but he’s never seemed quite as confident a storyteller as he does here. Can’t wait for volume two.
Giant robots and wisecracking cats. They’re such great cartoon tropes that you wonder why someone hasn’t tried to mesh them together before now. But mesh they do in Brian Ralph’s Reggie-12, an episodic comic strip about an constantly plucky, ever-optimistic Astro Boy-like robot who constantly is saving the city he lives in from danger (usually in the form of other, bigger robots), only to face withering indifference from everyone back home, especially the afore-mentioned cat.
Originally serialized in the pages of Giant Robot magazine and other assorted comics anthologies, the Reggie-12 strips have now been collected in a handsome, oversize, hardbound book from Drawn and Quarterly. Ralph was at the Small Press Expo this year, signing copies of his new book and generally helping man the D& Q booth. I pulled him away for a bit and, once we found a place to sit down, peppered him with questions about Reggie-12.
Chris Mautner: When was the first appearance of Reggie-12? Do you remember when you started these strips?
Brian Ralph: You know, I don’t. I had done comics in Giant Robot earlier before Reggie-12. There was this thing I did called The Legend of Giant Robot. It wasn’t funny. It was trying to be an ongoing serialized comic. I just didn’t have the storytelling chops yet. I ended it and wanted to start something new. That’s when Reggie-12 started and it was such a better fit for the magazine. It’s hard to do a daily strip in a magazine that comes out every month. I got so much more story packed into a smaller space. I don’t know the exact year [it began] though. Ten years ago?
As promised, here are some thoughts on this year’s SPX, along with some sorta short reviews of some of the more notable comics I picked up at the show (that I’ve read thus far.
I’ll be posting some thoughts on the Small Press Expo, along with a short rundown of the more notable books I received, later this week. For now, though, here’s a varied look at this year’s convention from various folks’ Twitter feeds and Instagram accounts that I culled together using Storify. Enjoy!
One of the biggest indie comics events of the year, Small Press Expo (aka SPX), will take place Saturday and Sunday at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel and Conference Center in North Bethesda, Maryland.
It’s a must-attend show for me, and this year will be no different. Well, it will be a little different, as my 11-year-old daughter will be coming along for what will be her first-ever comics convention. She will have copies of her own comic, Indefinable, for sale, so if you see us wandering the aisles, say hello.
Traversing the aisles of SPX with a pre-teen might prove to be a bit of a challenge, but I’m going to try to cram as much age-appropriate comics fun in the weekend as possible. Here’s some things I’m looking forward to/hoping to buy.
Five comics I’m planning on buying:
1. Wild Man: Island of Memory by T. Edward Bak. I’m a big fan of Bak’s Service Industry and really enjoyed the story he was serializing in Mome, about explorer and scientist Georg Steller. Wild Man: Island of Memory collects and reworks that material, the first part of what will be a projected four-volume series. Based on what I’ve read so far, I feel expect that this will be one of the more talked-about books at SPX this year.
2. Frontier #2 by Hellen Jo. Jo has been relatively quiet comics-wise since she released Jim and Jan a few years back. Now, via Ryan Sands’ relatively new publishing venture, Youth in Decline, she’s got what’s sure to be a swell mini collecting various paintings, pencils and other artwork.
3. Monster. It just wouldn’t be SPX if Hidden Fortress Press didn’t have a new volume of this usually reliable anthology. This year looks to be especially good, with 200 pages of comics by such noteworthy names as Marc Bell, Mat Brinkman, Jordan Crane, Michael DeForge, Edie Fake and Leif Goldberg. That’s a pretty killer list of talent – when was the last time we saw a new Brinkman comic, anyway?
4. Gold Pollen and Other Stories by Seiichi Hayashi. It’s nice to see more and more classic manga from people that aren’t Osamu Tezuka coming to Western shores. This is a collection of short stories from the author of Red Colored Elegy, a book I was a bit flummoxed by initially but that has slowly won me over more in ensuing years. The Picturebox site still labels it as “coming soon,” but it’s listed as a debut book on the SPX site. Basically, if it’s there, I’m buying a copy.
5. Love Stories by Mat Tait. New Zealand will be duly represented at the show by Tait, who will have this collection of stories available for sale. I’ve heard good things about Tait’s work and am excited to delve into it.
Tony Cliff didn’t have to escape jail, run from enraged armies or travel in flying ships to complete his debut graphic novel Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, but it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if he had. The energy he invests in his story of a globetrotting, devil-may-care adventurer and the reluctant but noble soldier who inadvertently ends up tagging along suggests Cliff has a bit of the thrill-seeker in him, or at least in his pen.
Wanting to learn more about this former Flight cartoonist and his new book, I lobbed a bunch of questions to Cliff, who was nice enough to lob the answers back my way.
Robot 6: How did Delilah Dirk come to be? What was the original idea behind the character, and how did it change from the initial webcomic to Turkish Lieutenant?
Tony Cliff: It started off as a 30-page comic that I thought I’d put together just as a fun thing to do. I’d been reading a lot of Napoleonic War-era novels and wanted to make something in the same time period, with the sort of spirit I’d enjoyed in Indiana Jones and James Bond movies. Something fun, with a bunch of action and a variety of colorful settings.
I combined that first comic with a short story from the Flight anthologies, added a hundred pages to combine the two, and that became The Turkish Lieutenant as it appeared online. The print edition is more or less the same as the webcomic, though some of the text’s been finessed and there are roughly a dozen new pages of what has been described as “Delilah and Selim being cute in the woods,” a description whose accuracy I cannot dispute.
The small press publisher Yeti Press has launched a Kickstarter project asking contributors to help sustain the company’s growth over the next year. The company plans to release six comics and graphic novels over the next several months and is looking for early subscribers :
We have grown steadily over the last 2 years, but to take the next step towards where we want to be, we are asking for your help. A stellar lineup of books has been assembled, including brand new talent and Yeti Press favorites, that we’d like to release over the next year. Three of those books would be completed and shipped in the fall/winter months and another 3 would come to you in the spring/summertime. This Kickstarter effort will be a one time only deal, offering single issues, assorted goodies, and most importantly - a subscription service.
You young ‘uns with your gussied-up webcomics, New York Times bestseller lists and oversized, obscure comic strip collections. Let me tell you, you don’t know how lucky you’ve got it today. Time was, back in the black-and-white boom of the 1980s, once you got past Raw, Weirdo, Love and Rockets and, oh, let’s say Cerebus, finding a decent comic that showed a modicum of sophistication and style could be challenge. More so if you wanted to wave it under the nose of a friend or family member that scoffed at your interest in sequential art so you could say, “See? Comics are too a legitimate art form” before stomping off to your room to be alone with your copies of Cherry Poptart.
As a result, any funnybook that dared to offer something beyond the usual Spandex fisticuffs or animals that perform martial arts had a strong shot at garnering a cult following (and maybe a living wage, though let’s not get crazy here). Poison Elves. Works for me. Boris the Bear? Sure, why not. Fish Police? Damn straight. Omaha the Cat Dancer? You betcha.
(NSFW image below)
Is Noah Van Sciver the finest cartoonist of his generation? It certainly seems like he’s on the path to earn that title, as readers of The Hypo and his contribution to Alternative Comics #4 will attest. Van Sciver further underscores his considerable talent in Deep in the Woods, a two-man anthology published on newspaper. Van Sciver’s original (I’m assuming) fairy tale involves a hapless and poor young maiden who flees her evil stepmother and alcoholic father only to come across a supernatural benefactor in the shape of a floating cow’s head. The temptation to let the story delve into parody or slapstick must have been tremendous, especially during sequences like the one where the girl, Robin, attempts to feed the cow, only to have the stew slop out the back of its head. But Van Sciver plays it deadly straight here, keeping the comedy at a far, buried distance (though not so buried that it’s completely undetectable). Filling his pages with suffocating black ink, often in the form of nefarious tree branches that threaten to engulf the protagonists, Van Sciver has created a decidedly claustrophobic, downbeat fairy tale that is no less magical due to the storytelling craft on display.
Nic Breutzman is someone I’m less familiar with, or rather, I should say I’m not that familiar with his work at all. I like his contribution here though, a somewhat more modern tale involving a poor, meth-taking family, the level-headed young girl that serves as our protagonist, a grandfather who won’t come out of a well and a nefarious creature that lives in a hollow tree. I’m all about stories that place archetypical folk structures and place them in a modern setting and Breutzman does that well enough here that I’m going to keep an eye out for what he does next time.
Sure, everyone gets worked up about turning comics into movies, but what about the other way around? Cartoonists have been attempting to cram great works of literature or art into tiny panels since the birth of Classics Illustrated. But many of these adaptations, despite the noblest of intentions, fall horribly flat or fail to evoke a tenth of the original work’s greatness.
There are exceptions of course; comics that not only manage to capture or add to the spirit of the original work, but in a few cases are the equal or better of the source material. Here then are six such examples. Feel free to include your own nominations in the comments section.